Postcard from Antwerp



I'm writing this from a cafe in Antwerp, at the end of my first mini book tour abroad, having spent the last week doing talks and interviews in Amsterdam and Antwerp. My Dutch publisher, Regine, has been putting a lot into the promotion here - there’s even going to be a poster campaign around the country. The poster-slogan will be 'Like Alain de Botton...but with hair!' I went to the Antwerp book fair yesterday and was gratified to see one of the posters, above an enormous pile of books.

Regine also set up eight or so interviews in the last week with newspapers, magazine and radio. The photoshoots were a bit weird for me - I'm not very photogenic, and just about the only good photos of me in existence were taken by my friend Claudia on the Camino de Santiago - in fact, one of her photos from that trip is on the Dutch cover and another is on the South Korean cover.

The interviews were also It was strange to get personal questions lobbed at me like ‘how is your love life?’, ‘do you believe in God?’ and (my personal favourite) ‘have you really recovered from mental illness?’ What can you say to that? 'No, I still live perched on the edge of madness'.

In Amsterdam, I met Stine Jensen, who is the young face of philosophy in Holland (though she's actually Danish). She has a real portfolio career - teaching literary theory in the university, writing a philosophy column, appearing on radio, and even hosting her own philosophy TV show, called DusIkBen. She told me she’s about to launch a philosophy show for kids, called DusIkBen Junior. She also has a new range in philosophical gifts - she is launching a ‘conversation box’ in time for Christmas, with quote-cards by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard etc, to stimulate better family conversations this Yuletide.

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The Dutch are immensely into self-help, psychology and practical philosophy - perhaps even more than us. One of their most popular magazines is called Happinez. Practical philosophy is perhaps not quite as big there as in the UK (I think we've developed something quite special in that respect) but it’s not far behind. Alain de Botton, for example, is very popular here, and is often on TV. His lifestyle-design approach to philosophy works perfectly in Dutch culture, which is very secular, middle class, and house-proud.

Why should the English and the Dutch be so hot on practical philosophy? I guess it’s a part of our Protestant culture - that sense of trying to improve our selves, rather than relying on God or the Church or great prophets like Marx and Rousseau. We are more practical people, suspicious of intellectual prophets. And both our cultures are quite private and individualistic. We don’t want others intruding into our lives. We don’t like the enforced community of religious societies - we want self-help advice, not commandments and diktats.

But the flip-side of that, perhaps, is that our cultures can be quite individualistic and uncaring for the poor and marginalized. You’re suffering? That’s on you pal! Take care of yourself. As someone put it to me, the Dutch are very tolerant - we don’t care what you do. Perhaps practical philosophy / self-help can also be quite individualistic and uncharitable, compared to Christianity. I wonder again whether practical philosophy can be more than personal self-help, whether it can create genuine caring communities, where people don’t just tolerate each other, but care for each other. Could be a philosophy group where people know each other, care for each other, love each other. Sounds like an invasion of your privacy? Well, that’s the whole point.

And could such groups really change society, to make it less unequal and more caring? I don't know, but it seems to me we can't afford to retreat into private Epicurean communes of the affluent, arranging our beliefs like so many scatter cushions. Stine Jensen asked me, why are so many English philosophers from fairly privileged backgrounds? Good question. Because we have a very unequal education system...we need to admit that, and think how to improve it.

I visited two practical philosophy organisations while here, one in Antwerp and another in Amsterdam. The one in Amsterdam is called De Rode Hoed (the redhead), which hosts ideas discussions every evening or so. It’s a beautiful converted ‘secret church’. There’s another philosophy place recently opened in Amsterdam, called Brandstof. It’s aiming, I think, to be the Dutch version of the School of Life, and is organising a big one-day event on December 1 with lots of Brits from the School of Life coming over, including Alain de Botton, Roman Krznaric, Philippa Perry, and me. The British invasion!

In Antwerp, meanwhile, I gave a talk at an unusual place called The Searching Deer, which hosts monthly talks by visiting philosophers. I love the Searching Deer, it has a philosophical doorbell...

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Even the wine is philosophical:

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I stayed in the guestroom there, which had a large mural of Nietzsche on the wall and a statue of a strange woman in the bathroom.

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The place was set up by Eddy and his wife. They go on book-holidays where they follow in the footsteps of their favourite writers, while lugging a suitcase full of that writer’s books - last year they followed in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf around the south of England.

I’m off back home this evening, tired but happy. Thanks to my wonderful Dutch publisher, Regine, and also to Wilhemina for organising such a great and busy programme. Regine is really a perfect publisher to have - good at her job, eager to promote you, and not in it for the money. After I gave my talk at De Rode Hoed, she gave me a big hug and said ‘I’m so proud of you!’ That’s the type of publisher she is. Next week the book comes out in Germany. I haven't any events or interviews set up there yet, but am hoping some will happen.


In other news:

Someone has set up a 'well-being bank' in Hartlepool where people can swap good deeds.

Here's an interesting article on how the Coalition's idea of 'Health and Well-Being Boards' can be used as a vehicle for Socratic discussion, in this instance between prison inmates and prison officials about improving prisoners' mental health and well-being.

Could the Quantified Self or 'digital well-being' market be worth $2 trillion? Sounds like colossal hype to me.

Here's a piece in Newsweek by my friend Peter Pomeranzev about the Dalai Lama's new book, which claims that ethics classes could save societies from moral corruption.

Here's a great article from Aeon about how scientific investigation into hallucinogenics is bringing western rationalist materialism up against some 'squirmy questions' about God and the spirit realm. Can we steer through the Scylla of neural reductionism and the Charybidis of Woo-Woo?

Once again a physicist said philosophy has lost its bite, and once again it provoked a lot of soul searching among philosophers - some of whom agreed that the academicization of philosophy may have actually impoverished it rather than improved it. I tend to agree - we need to free academic philosophers from their chicken-coops. We need free-range philosophers.

People are worried that the government's new EBACC has completely ignored the arts, including art, theatre and philosophy. All the good stuff! Here's a letter written by some eminent artists to the government.

Here's a piece by The Education Elf on a new RCT testing a whole-school intervention to improve children's well-being through Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support. They use these techniques in 16,000 schools across the US, and the study found that it works - sort of.

OK, I'm off home now. Looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, though I will miss the taciturn lady in the bathroom.

See you next week,